Protecting our assets

Throughout the past 12 months, I have travelled extensively to communicate Ireland’s position in relation to the CAP to other agriculture ministers and Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos and learn what the key issues are for other member states.

This has to be done to drive reform and achieve consensus at an EU level; with 27 member states and widely varying interests, it is challenging to reach agreement but we are working hard to do so and lobbying other member states to achieve the best possible outcome for Ireland.

One of the most crucial issues will be the allocation of direct payments within member states. The priority for Ireland is to obtain as much flexibility as possible with regard to payment models. The commission proposal to move to flat national or regional rates will cause large transfers from the more productive farms to more marginal and less productive land.

We want flexibility to limit the amount a farmer could lose in a redistribution and to achieve this, we have proposed an “approximation” approach, by which all payments could gradually move towards, but not fully to, the average.

A number of other member states are supporting us in this and I have emphasised to the commissioner that this is a crucial issue for Irish farmers.

For the first time since CAP discussions began, member states at last week’s Council of Agriculture Ministers generally endorsed the Irish presidency package of measures as a step towards an overall deal. Negotiations are far from over but this agreement that flexibility is needed is very welcome.

The existing CAP Framework expires at the end of 2013, and a reformed framework is being negotiated for the period 2014-2020.

The commission proposals contain texts of seven draft regulations covering four main aspects of the CAP:

* Direct payments (including transitional arrangements for 2013);

* Rural development;

* Single Common Market Organisation — to replace 21 existing CMOs;

* Financing and control measures.

The timeline is important. We are making a concerted effort to secure a deal on CAP during our presidency. At the start of 2013, we identified three things that needed to happen:

* An early agreement on the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF);

* Rapid progress on outstanding technical and political issues;

* Active engagement in the process from all three institutions — the European Parliament, the Counciland the Commission.

There have been positive developments on all three fronts. Firstly, agreement on the MFF was secured at the European Council meeting in February, with a reasonable outcome for the CAP. Secondly, the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development voted through a series of amendments to CAP reform at the end of January.

Under the guidance of the Irish Presidency, the Council of Agriculture Ministers hopes to build on this momentum and secure what is known as a council-general approach on the CAP reform package by the end of March.

A number of outstanding issues have been resolved, and the general approach will hopefully coincide with the European Parliament’s finalisation of its position in March. This would allow trilogues (the platform through which final agreement is reached between the three institutions) to start in April, which would give the maximum possible chance for a CAP reform agreement by the end of June.

Ahead of the adoption of these formal positions, informal contacts (“trilaterals”) will take place on less sensitive issues, albeit with constraints as to what can be agreed.

The biggest issue for many, including Ireland, is the internal distribution of direct payments, or “internal convergence”. The commission’s proposal to move to a system of flat-rate national or regional payments would result in significant transfers between farmers. Those countries affected are seeking a solution that will mitigate this impact. Others, such as the newer member states who already implement an area-based system, are seeking alternative solutions, while others still (including Germany) are happy with the flat-rate system.

Last week’s Council of Agriculture Ministers broadly endorsed a package of measures tabled by the Irish presidency aimed at achieving a compromise on this very difficult issue. The package included the option to implement the so-called “approximation’ model favoured by Ireland, which would result in a far lower level of transfers between farmers than envisaged under the commission’s proposals.

A good deal of work remains to be done, but it is hoped a final set of proposals can be agreed by the council later this month.

Another issue that must be addressed is the so-called “greening” of the CAP — the need to develop the agriculture sector in a sustainable manner.

However, there are concerns about the separate and distinct nature of the greening payment and the fact that it is to be paid on a flat-rate basis. Most member states also have issues with the three greening criteria (crop diversification, maintenance of permanent grassland, and ecological focus areas) and would like more flexibility to implement these in a simpler manner that is also more relevant to local conditions.

Again, a package of proposed measures has been put together by the Irish presidency in an effort to reach a compromise on what is also a very complex and technical issue. These are being discussed by member states in Brussels today .

The main issues are the effect of the greening of direct payments on the baseline for rural development payments, the delimitation of areas with natural constraints and the structure of risk management and income stabilisation tools.

There are still issues to be resolved in the Single Common Market Organisation proposal

Supply control measures in the form of sugar quotas and vine planting rights will be a particularly difficult issue. Member states are divided on the question of whether sugar quotas should be abolished or extended, and on vine-planting rights, the key issues are the expiry date and the extent to which planting rights (or “authorisations”) will increase.

So how does the European Parliament view each of the main proposals?

On direct payments, MEPS are also primarily concerned about the distribution of payments within member states and the details of the “greening” proposals. They have also suggested amendments in relation to the definition of “active farmer”, the use of the national reserve, and the operation of the proposed young farmers’ and small farmers’ schemes.

On rural development, MEPs are seeking a minimum of 25% of rural development programme expenditure to be assigned to agri-environment schemes and organic farming, and have requested proposals on the designation of areas facing natural constraints. They have also suggested amendments in relation to farm and business development, risk management and greater support for forestry development.

On the Single CMO, MEPs’ concerns are focused on the extension of the sugar quota regime, supply management in the milk sector in the event of market imbalances and on the operation of exceptional market support measures. They have also proposed amendments in relation to marketing standards, the operation of producer organisations and competition rules.

On the financing and monitoring of the CAP, MEPs have submitted amendments primarily in relation to sanctions and penalties, and on the operation of cross compliance rules.


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